In her darkest hours during her nearly 18 months away from competitive ski jumping, world champion Sarah Hendrickson found one thing that would keep her going: walking.
“I walked and I listened to podcasts,” Hendrickson told TeamUSA.org in a recent phone interview from Slovenia, where she has been training between world cup events.
“I would just go out in the middle of a snow storm, a nice day or whatever, and just walk around the neighborhood for an hour, an hour and a half. That really helped me.”
Hendrickson and those around her struggled to know what would help her for much of the second half of 2015. A world champion in women’s ski jumping in 2013, she looked primed to contend for a gold medal at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games – the first Games to contest women’s ski jumping – before a crash in August 2013 meant a torn ACL.
She rushed to get back and ready for Sochi, and while she made Olympic history by being the first female ski jumper to speed down the jump, she finished a disappointing 21st. After an up-and-down 2014-15 world cup season, Hendrickson never expected what happened next: She injured her knee again, this time in June 2015. She wouldn’t compete for some 18 months, until just this last weekend, at a world cup in Lillehammer, Norway.
“I thought about quitting every day, honestly,” Hendrickson, now 22, admits. “It was brutal.”
Those brutal moments are what have made Hendrickson so strong, and kept her going as an athlete. Before Sochi, she was just a teenager and seen as one of the pioneers of the sport, the chosen American woman to try and claim a medal in her event’s historic Olympic debut.
Like this past season, however, fate had another idea, and now with the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, 14 months away, Hendrickson has been driven in her comeback by becoming a healthy, mature athlete for the Games, the event that means the most to her sport and so many others.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, the Olympics has a huge role,” Hendrickson said of 2018. “I’ve dreamed of winning an Olympic gold and while those dreams were crushed four years ago, now I want another chance. Doing it with the training that I have, now I’m prepared. I hope that I can accomplish that. I have some steps to make before then, but at this point I feel really good and excited in general to have that chance again.”
This current comeback has been a long an arduous one for Hendrickson, who has spent over 2,000 hours in the gym rehabbing. Beset by frustrations, Hendrickson tamed and tackled her emotions with those aforementioned walks around her Park City, Utah, home, where she was living at the time with her family. While it was recommended to her that she could start running at three months after the June 2015 injury, she waited until six because she wanted to be 100 percent sure her knee would support her. In the meantime, she walked. And walked and walked and walked.
“I was still getting to be outside and enjoy nature, and I felt like I was slowly progressing,” says Hendrickson of her daily strolls. “I listened to TED Talks, to the podcast ‘Serial’ and this other podcast called ‘My Favorite Murder.’ It’s kind of like CSI, but it’s just these two ladies talking about solved or unsolved murders… they’re just the funniest people ever! (Laughs.) I would just zone out. It was calming.”
It was the calming that Hendrickson needed. She never took more than two days off from rehabbing her knee, but she said some days she would wake up and feel completely lost, a warrior whose call to battle has been taken away from her. She took online classes via Utah State to stay occupied, and while the reward of an “A” was somewhat satisfying, it didn’t make up for not being able to launch yourself off of a man-made cliff and soar through the wintry air.
“The ones closest to me, my family and my boyfriend, they saw me on my roughest days… They didn’t even know what to say,” says Hendrickson of her injury-stricken days. “I was on thin ice at some points with myself. I wanted to walk away so bad. I knew I had so much more to give this sport.
“If I didn’t come back, I would have regretted it three years down the road. I had to keep fighting, and now I’m glad that I did.”
Hendrickson returned to the world cup circuit in Lillehammer last weekend and finished in 11th and eighth place, respectively, on the two days of competition. It was her goal to be in the top 10. By the end of the season, she’d like to be climbing onto the podium once again.
“To be honest, I never thought that this day would come,” Hendrickson said. “It was such a long recovery that you lose a little bit of hope and perspective of the final goal. Just to be there was a little bit surreal for me.”
“Now I’m eager and hungry for more,” she adds. “I got a little taste of potentially being on the podium, so I’m just so hungry to be back where I know that I can be.”
Before Sochi, Hendrickson was taking turns at the top of the podium in ski jumping with a 4-foot-11 Japanese phenom also named Sara – Japan’s Sara Takanashi. Two years Hendrickson’s junior, Takanashi would finish fourth at the Sochi Olympics but then win the overall world cup in 2014 and 2016. She lost just three competitions in the 2015-16 season (finishing second at two of them), and last week in Lillehammer won both events.
Hendrickson, quietly, has been watching Takanashi from afar.
“Watching Sara Takanashi dominate is a little frustrating,” Hendrickson admits. “She’s just an amazing athlete and when no one is pressuring her, she can have a field day. She’s just so driven and mentally tough. I do think she’s beatable, though. I don’t think anyone is unbeatable. That’s definitely in the future for what I see myself doing in the next couple of years, is pushing her.”
This weekend women’s ski jumping heads to Nizhny Tagil, Russia, where Hendrickson will try to continue to push herself into the top 10 with an eye on the best three and careful attention to her knee, which she says is still the biggest hurdle for her to get over.
“I’ve had my knee fail twice now, so it’s really hard to just trust that it’s strong and trust that I’ve done all of the right things and that it’s going to be safe,” she explains. “Every time I feel a little bit of pain, I kind of go through this whole cycle in my head that I think something is wrong (with it). I’m trying to push that out of my head and then executing flying off a ski jump and trusting it. It’s pretty hard.”
Hendrickson has been encouraged by the slew of specialists she’s seen, doctors who have told her that a knee like hers — which has been through so much—looks incredible. Her coach in Park City, Alan Alborn, has been a constant positive force, as well as her Slovenia-based coach, Vasja Bajc.
Hendrickson has also observed a hero of hers — Lindsey Vonn — come back from injury after injury. Her approach: If Lindsey can do it, so can I.
“Lindsey is such an idol to me,” she says. “The injuries that she has gone through are just unfathomable for any athlete. She continues to bounce back time after time. Going through one fifth, one tenth of what she has gone through, I just have so much respect for that. … It’s so much harder to go through it than watch it from the outside. I don’t think people realize how hard it is.”
Hendrickson, too, has been through the hard part, and now looks forward to a world cup season that she hopes to compete in from start to finish. Midway through the season, the women’s ski jumpers will stop in PyeongChang for a test event at the Olympic site, a place where Hendrickson would like to envision herself winning Olympic gold 12 months later.
Her return in Lillehammer affirmed one thing for her, however: How much she missed what has become her extended ski jumping family.
“People were so supportive and so nice,” she says. “It really reminded me how amazing the women’s ski jumping community is and everything we fight for to push the sport. Some of my best friends are girls from France, Austria and Slovenia, and it’s just so nice to be back with them. I’ve really missed that family that I didn’t get to see for a whole year.”
And, if she never went for all of those walks, she may not have given herself the chance to come back to fly.